After an apparent hiatus that delayed the announcement of India’s cabinet for more than 12 hours, the names of Narendra Modi’s new government appeared at midday May 31, confirming what was already evident – that this is now a Modi-Shah government with Amit Shah, who till now had been the tough Bharatiya Janata Party president, sharing the limelight with Narendra Modi and becoming home minister.
Modi and his team were sworn in on May 30 in the grounds of the Rashtrapati Bhawan. The crowd was so large – reportedly some 8,000 people – that it is tempting to suspect he was trying to replicate the swearing of a US president, in which Donald Trump fared badly two years ago because of large gaps in the crowd.
The soundest appointment announced today was S. (Subrahmanyam) Jaishankar, 64, as minister for external affairs. A former foreign secretary and ambassador to the US under Modi (and earlier to China), Jaishankar is a strong advocate of Modi’s foreign policies and shares his vision of India’s role as a strong Hindu nation.
He will want to strengthen the country’s regional presence, and also sharpen the delivery and effectiveness of Indian diplomacy around the world. He has worked at the Tata group as an international ambassador for the past year, but there was always a strong possibility he would return to be with Modi after the election.
The potentially most controversial appointment is Shah, 54, as minister for home affairs. A hardline Hindu nationalist, he has been outspoken on the need to take a tough line on matters such as illegal (Muslim) immigrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar and a pending citizenship bill that is directed against Muslims. He is also likely to regard Kashmir as a problem to be dealt with by strong army and security operations, rather than a more collaborative approach, and will have control over the country’s paramilitary security forces.
Together, Shah and Jaishankar will strengthen the policy and strategic advice that Modi receives on key security and foreign affairs issues such as Pakistan and China, where Ajit Doval, a former spy chief has held tactical sway as Modi’s national security advisor in the prime minister’s office (PMO) since 2014.
The potentially weakest appointment is that of Nirmala Sitharaman, 59, who unexpectedly becomes minister for finance and corporate affairs, just as the seriousness of the country’s economic problems is becoming evident.
GDP figures confirm earlier disputed figures. In the three months to March the economy grew by only 5.8 percent, down from around 6.5 percent. New unemployment figures for what is known as the formal sector are at a 45-year record high of 6.1 percent. Agricultural growth is down at 2.9 percent from 5 percent.
Narendra Modi, taking the oath
These figures confirm the government’s failure to boost growth and tackle a growing job shortage, points that Modi, Jaitley and others were unwilling to acknowledge during the election campaign.
Help for farmers was announced along with other measures this evening at the new cabinet’s first meeting. Sitharaman’s primary focus is on the budget speech that she will deliver on July 5.
She has been mentored for years by Arun Jaitley, the outgoing finance minister, who told Modi this week that he could not take a government post because of serious ill health. She did not shine as minister of state in charge of the commerce and industry ministry from 2014, nor did she make sufficient early moves when she became defense minister 20 months ago.
Sitharaman will not however be totally in charge. As happened when Jaitley had the job, there is a strong nexus between top finance ministry officials and the PMO, which keeps a tight grip on all policies. Jaitley will also, presumably, continue his mentor’s role. She is only the second woman finance minister, the first being Indira Gandhi when she was prime minister 50 years ago.
Amit Shah was strongly rumored by usually reliable media outlets just a few hours before the swearing in to be taking the finance ministry post. With previous experience as a stockbroker and as minister for finance (and many other areas) in Gujarat when Modi was the chief minister, he would have brought a sharp focused mind to the job.
Whether the switch from Shah to Sitharaman, maybe linked with other changes, caused the more than 12-hour delay in announcing the cabinet is not yet clear.
Pratap Chandra Sarangi takes the oath
The minister who understandably expected to get the finance job was Piyush Goyal, who became temporary finance minister when Jaitley was seriously ill last August and again earlier this year when he presented the government’s interim budget. He was an effective power and coal minister early in the last government and then took charge of railways. He now adds the key role of commerce and industry ministry, succeeding Suresh Prabhu who has not been given a ministerial post.
Prabhu was also the aviation minister during last year’s bungled attempt to privatize Air India. His number two, who has also been dropped, was Jayant Sinha, a former banker who was a successful minister of state at finance before he moved to aviation. Sinha’s career was possibly blighted by his father, former BJP finance minister Yashwant Sinha, being one of Modi’s most vocal critics among veteran politicians.
The job of trying again to privatize Air India has gone to Hardeep Singh Puri, a former top diplomat who became a Rajya Sabha MP and has been minister of state in charge of housing and urban affairs. His minister of state role has now been extended to take charge of aviation, even though he failed to win Amritsar for the BJP in the election.
Among other appointments, Rajnath Singh, who was home minister, has been moved to defense. Nitin Gadkari has added the important job-creating ministry of small and medium enterprises to his highways and transport portfolio. Former tv star Smriti Irani, who hit the headlines by winning Rahul Gandhi’s parliamentary constituency of Amethi in the election, has been given responsibility for women and child development in addition to textiles.
Nuke tests 100,000 years ago
Perhaps inevitably in a Hindu nationalist cabinet there were questionable ministerial candidates. One was Pratap Chandra Sarangi (above) from Odisha (Orissa), who hit the popular headlines as he emerged from his bamboo hut where he lives to go to Delhi. He is also remembered as head of the Bajrang Dal, a hardline rightwing group linked to the BJP, when a Hindu mob brutally killed Australian Christian missionary Graham Staines and his two children in 1999.
Then there was Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank, appointed minister of human resource development in charge of education. Referring to an ancient Hindu sage, he said in 2014, “We speak about nuclear science today. But Sage Kanad conducted nuclear test one lakh [100,000] years ago.”
Someone is ‘delusional’
Perhaps the most telling event of the day was the treatment by Amit Shah of Nitish Kumar, chief minister of Bihar. Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) state-based party is in the BJP’s National Democratic Alliance. It won 16 seats in the election and the BJP won 17, so Kumar thought his party should have the “proportional representation” of two ministers in the cabinet.
Indicating the government has lost none of its arrogance with allies, Shah told him there could only be one as a “symbolic representation,” which he declined.
Kumar had the last word with a sharp dig at Modi’s campaign grandstanding: “No one should have any confusion that it’s a victory of the people of Bihar. If somebody is claiming that this is his personal victory, then they are delusional.”
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s South Asia correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant.